Tom was five years old, my only son, the elder of my two children, and as such the first to embark upon the long journey into the education system. Our small family had gathered on an early summer day to watch and take part (there were of course the obligatory parents' races to be endured) in his first school sports day. My competitive hopes were high: Tom had proven himself to be fleet of foot and nimble with it. His chances of success in the sprinting race - and the sporting world in general, for that matter - were, I felt, extremely high. That day, I was excited on his behalf, and more than ready to play the role of the proud parent of an accomplished athlete.
Finally, after what had frankly been an exasperating schedule of egg-and-spoon races, jumping-in-a-sack races, three-legged races and assorted other decidedly non-Olympic events, the time for the full-on sprint race arrived. My pulse quickened as the competitors gathered in an almost straight line at the start. Anxiously I watched to make sure that none of the other five year-olds (the little buggers) were trying to gain an unfair advantage by taking an extra step before the flag dropped. Nobody, I had promised myself, was going to cheat my son out of his rightful victory.
I scanned the line of perhaps fifteen boys, my eyes resting for a moment upon a very small - noticeably small - kid who stood out for one other reason. In a town where ethnic minorities were few and far between, the very, very dark skin of this child was still a mild surprise, despite the fact that he had joined the school some months earlier. My eyebrow rose momentarily before I continued watching for any signs of sly, athletic shenanigans. As my gaze reached the end of the line, it settled upon the little boy's parents, easily identifiable, both by the colour of their skin and by the stunningly vibrant clothes that they had worn to the event. I was impressed, and also suddenly a little ashamed of my Tee shirt and cargo shorts combination. Those folks (as it would turn out, recently arrived from Kenya) had raised their game for their son...maybe I should have done the same (but then what would I have worn?)...
With a shouted "GO!", the green starting flag fell (surely not accurate enough to enable the correct finishing times to be recorded to within a thousandth of a second, I felt, but I would graciously let it pass for the sake of not creating a 'scene'). Like a collection of differently-propelled projectiles, the children variously sprang, stepped, stumbled or rocketed off the start line. To my delight, Tom was in the lead immediately, his little arms and legs pumping away in a determined blur. He pulled away from the chasing pack - with one exception. I watched with a mixture of disbelief and horror as the tiny black kid, moving faster than any child of his age that I had ever seen, overtook my poor Tommy, and left him in his dust as he powered his way to a deeply impressive victory. Shit, I thought.
A few moments later I found myself comforting the second-place finisher and reassuring him that he'd done a great job and yes, was still seriously quick, etc. etc.. I looked around for the winner, hoping to demonstrate how to congratulate someone magnanimously (I'd finished grinding my teeth by this time), only to see him hand in hand with his parents, disappearing into the crowd some distance away.
After some more clench-worthy sporting events of questionable value (e.g. the balance-a-ball-on-your-head race), the afternoon drew to a natural conclusion and we began to make our way back towards the car park. Looking down at Tommy I asked him "Who was the little black lad, then?". He stopped, a look of confusion on his face. "Black?" he said with a note of disbelief - clearly he thought that dad was goofing around again. "Well, not really black, but definitely brown, then." I said. The look of consternation on my son's face grew more pronounced. "I don't know what you mean, daddy!" I tried again; "The little fellah that won the running race - the brown-skinned boy." Tom looked at me with some relief. "Ohhhh, you mean Eko!" I smiled down at him, thinking that that was a truly fantastic name.
And then he did it. It was then that he taught me a profound lesson that I have never forgotten. The look of puzzlement returned as he looked up at me, squinting in the sunlight. "But Eko isn't brown!" he said in a way that indicated that he obviously felt that I was losing my marbles. I felt my skin shiver as every tiny hair instantly stood on end, the import of what he had said flooding my consciousness. At the age of five, my innocent, unspoiled child had just told me something completely true and yet incredible. I had no more words worth saying as the realization soaked in.
The colour of his classmate's skin - so obviously different to my adult, jaundiced eyes - had never even registered with him.
Now, especially now in these times of broadcast intolerance, prejudice and bigotry, I find myself thinking: if only...